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Timothy Leary and Psychedelic Drugs in the 60’s

During the latter half of the 1960’s the restless youth of America sought answers about the increasingly disastrous Vietnam War, simmering racial tensions and other perceived injustices in their society. With the introduction of LSD and other psychedelic drugs Timothy Leary and other figureheads encouraged the youth of America to free their minds and question authority. This movement and others led to protests erupting across the United States as American youth began to identify themselves with a number of counter-culture movements.

Before 1962 few people knew about LSD. Lysergic Acid Diethylamide is a tasteless, colorless, odorless drug that can be ingested in many forms, including capsules and as a liquid soaked into paper “hits” and sugar cubes. By 1970, between one to two million people had experienced an LSD “trip.” The demand for the drug grew from the years of 1962 to 1969, and it was widely publicized in the famous “Acid Tests” staged by fellow counter-culture guru Ken Kesey. The more attention it got, the more people wanted to try it. Prior to this sudden popularity, few had paid attention to the drug until an ex-West Point student and Harvard University professor took notice of LSD and started a revolution.

Timothy Leary was born October 22, 1920 in Springfield, Mass. He attended West Point for a short time but was kicked out after violating the school’s ‘honor code’. After serving in a Pennsylvania military hospital during World War II, Leary earned a PhD from The University of California Berkley. His first wife, Marianne, committed suicide and this was a major contributor to his disillusionment with “middle-class” life in America. He subsequently took a lecturer position at Harvard. During a 1960 trip to Mexico, Leary first tried drugs, specifically psychedelic mushrooms. He returned to Harvard and started the Harvard Psilocybin Project. This project studied the effects of psilocybin on humans. Leary experienced his first LSD trip in 1962 and described it as “The most shattering experience of my life”. After this first trip, Leary became a self-appointed spokesperson for LSD.

Taking LSD and absorbing the teachings of Timothy Leary and other psychedelic pioneers affected the youth of America immensely. Leary urged anyone who would listen to question authority, especially in regard to the war in Vietnam as well as the draft. He suggested that LSD expanded the mind and helped people to think of alternative ways to solve problems. His famous quote of “Tune in, turn on, drop out.” (coined by contemporary Marshall MacLuhan) became something of a mantra amongst the disaffected youth of America and even, to a lesser extent, in Europe.

After a stint in prison he escaped to Algeria and Switzerland in the company of his second wife. He was caught in 1973 by government officials in Afghanistan and sent back to serve the remainder of his sentence in California. He found fulfillment in the last 20 years of his life lecturing to audiences across the country and writing books. He died from prostate cancer in 1997, surrounded by friends.


Researched by Annie Precourt, Cosby High School and Volunteer for The Cold War Museum
Edited by Jeremy Simmons, Volunteer for The Cold War Museum


Bexte, Martina. “The Vietnam War Protests”. Essortment. May 1, 2008

Brecher, Edward M.. “The Consumer Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs”. Consumer Reports Magazine. May 1, 2008

Fabrikant, Dr. Craig. “Vietnam War Protests ”. Memory Archvie. April 30, 2008 . Higgs, Robert. “The Vietnam War and the Drug War”. The Independant Institution. April 30, 2008 .

“Timothy Leary”. Erowild. April 29, 2008 .

“Timothy Learys Influence of Others”. Wikipedia. April 29, 2008 .

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